After nine years of meeting twice a week in a high school auditorium, our congregation grew to a little more than two hundred people. We began saving aggressively to purchase a church building of our own, and eventually decided to buy a warehouse unit about fifteen minutes from the high school.
Even before we moved, there were challenges. The building was in a lower-income area, so many in my congregation had mixed emotions. This new location was on a one-way street, concealed behind trees, with a storefront exterior, but I was certain it was the right choice. Its modest eighty-seven hundred square feet could seat roughly three hundred people in the main sanctuary and another hundred people on the second level. While the structure might not have been beautiful, it would be our own, and for that I was extremely excited.
When we completed the build-out, I felt like after years of hard work, I was finally able to exhale. At our grand opening, the building was packed with people. Most came out of curiosity, and many in the congregation had already decided to attend churches closer to their homes. Every week our attendance dwindled. Six months later, the congregation had shrunk from hundreds to fewer than thirty adults. For some it was the distance, for others it was the neighborhood, and others just flowed out to be with their friends.
The monthly mortgage payment of the new building was roughly twelve thousand dollars. There was no way a congregation of thirty regular attenders could afford to pay this. My wife and I decided to put a lien on our home to buy us some time and keep the church afloat.
The church governing board was aware of the financial challenges, but I was unwilling to announce our financial needs to the few remaining congregants. Perhaps it was my pride, but I did not want to put any financial pressure on the congregation. Deep down inside, I was certain God had helped us move into the building, so I believed He would find a way for us to stay in it.
Even with that confidence, in the back of my mind, I wrestled with the question: “is this strike three?” My once-booming campus ministry was over-strike one. I was forced to shut down my first church plant in Washington DC-strike two. And this looked like the final pitch, a curveball; was I about to miss… again. Not only that, but this time was I was older and raising a family. It would take the rest of my life to recover from yet another failure.
This was my moment of truth! If God had truly called me to this work, He would have to show Himself strong. But weeks passed, and things only got worse. I remained silent with the congregation about our circumstances, and every Sunday and Wednesday I preached to disheartened people in an empty sanctuary. I finally ran out of money to lend to the church. I had to cut my losses for my family’s sake. So, I asked our realtor to put the brand-new church up for sale.
I was numb. I had run out of options and prayers. Solomon’s words echoed in my mind: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sparrows, for so He gives His beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1–2). I resigned myself to the fact that the church would not survive unless God did a miracle.
Through it all the Lord had been speaking to me through the Scriptures. In fact, the night before I asked the agent to put the building up for sale, God spoke to my heart a part of Romans 4:19 from the NIV translation: “[Abraham] faced the fact his body was as good as dead.” I felt the Lord was telling me to face the facts and deal with them squarely.
But The Message translation really brings the meaning of this verse to the surface:
We call Abraham “father” not because he got God’s attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. Isn’t that what we’ve always read in Scripture, God saying to Abraham, “I set you up as father of many peoples”? Abraham was first named “father” and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do but on what God said he would do. And so he was made father of a multitude of peoples. God himself said to him, “You’re going to have a big family, Abraham!”
“Raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing” was exactly what God would have to do for our church to survive. The many failures in my ministry were not designed to harm me but to build me. We are never the same when we come out of a storm as when we went into a storm, and this is what the storm is really about.
God-reliance and self-reliance are utterly incompatible and self-reliance had been my battle from day one. These early years of ministry reminded me of when I had a wart on my knuckle when I was a boy. The doctor started treatment by giving me an ointment, which did not work. Next he tried to burn it off – nothing happened. After the final burning treatment, the doctor pulled my father aside.
The appointment for the next visit came, and my father was quieter than usual on the ride to the doctor’s office. When I entered the examination room, the doctor exchanged glances with my dad. My father grabbed my hand and the doctor produced a huge needle and stuck it straight into my knuckle. I screamed, “Daddy, how could you do this?” As the needle entered my knuckle, I felt my father had betrayed me, but he did what any loving father would do to ensure the well-being of his child. Just because it hurts does not mean the results won’t be beautiful.
The needle only pierced the wart, but every part of my body protested. My father and the doctor never intended to harm me. They wanted the best for me and to rid me of what would only spread if left untreated.
Each failure since my final year in college was like a needle in my knuckle, medicine for my life. My failures helped strip me of my fierce independence and the stubborn notion that I could lead using my own resources. I was, and continue to be a work in progress, But after several “needles to my knuckle,” God’s medicine had finally begun to take.
I completely humbled myself, let go and got real. I admitted not only to God but more deeply than ever before to myself that, based on my own efforts I was like Abraham, as good as dead. As soon as I did this, it was as if God turned on a switch in my heart, and filled it with inexplicable confidence. By the weekend, I told the agent I had changed my mind about listing our property. When Sunday rolled around, I preached with an assurance I could not explain. And the church responded like never before.
The number of attendees began to explode. Within weeks, we increased from thirty members to a hundred. Within a few months, we were back to two hundred members. The rapid growth continued. In 2008 we had fewer than thirty members, but by 2011 we had a congregation of more than one thousand. I began to minister in four Sunday services to accommodate all the people who attended.
We leased a second building to serve our many children. We began a college to better serve our leaders. Many Sundays, people were turned away because our facility could not safely hold everyone who wanted to come for service.
By 2012 we purchased and renovated a warehouse directly across the street and turned it into a facility with a thousand-seat sanctuary amongst other things. We thought that the building would be large enough for us forever. By the first Sunday, we had to hold two services and eventually three to meet the needs of those God sent our way.
In 2013 and 2014 we were celebrated as one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. That may not be a big deal for some, but to me, it was as miraculous as God’s parting the Red Sea for the children of Israel. The words of the apostle Paul are the only way I can explain anything God has done in my life, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
God’s power works best not in people who think they are strong but in people who understand their weaknesses and limitations. The key to getting over most hurdles in life is first getting over yourself. Some people ask me how I grew my church to become so large in such a difficult part of the country. If I’m honest, I didn’t grow my church—it grew me.
This article was extracted from Issue 1 (Spring 2020) of the AVAIL Journal.
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